"Crooked on Campus" Laura Houston Newsweek March 19, 2004
Our columnist says today’s college politicians play dirty. How’d they learn? Watching the pros
March 19 - It’s hard to talk about a presidential campaign without slipping into hyperbole or cliché. News story after news story this spring is about how this year’s presidential campaign could be the dirtiest, nastiest race in history. The reply here at the University of Mississippi is resounding: “Duh.”
Ole Miss students were hardly shocked when John Kerry recently tagged his Grand Old Party opponents as “crooked” and “lying” and claimed he was going up against “a Republican attack squad that specializes in trying to destroy people.” You won’t have a hard time convincing many students here that the Republicans like to play rough or, for that matter, that the Democrats do too. It’s taken for granted on this campus that dirty tricks are in the nature of the political beast and that when the two parties talk about “getting their message out” they really mean leveling insults, spreading rumors and telling lies.
Outsiders might find this blasé attitude to be alarming. But what’s really disturbing is the trickle-down effect that bad behavior has on college-government campaigns. Today’s college politicians learn by example: when elections roll around, politically minded students play dirty because their national leaders have taught them there’s no other way to play.
It’s election season at Ole Miss in more ways than one. Spend a few minutes on our Oxford, Miss., campus and you’ll be inundated with fliers, plastered with stickers and pestered by annoying gofers all heralding the imminent presidential election for the Associated Student Body (ASB), our student government. Supposedly, these elections are open to anyone on campus. In reality, however, the Greeks tend to rule the game. Ole Miss fraternities and sororities have impressive political operations: they pick candidates, call up favors, remember grudges and twist arms in a campaign whirlwind that vaguely resembles “West Side Story” set in the South. On the surface, it’s hard to see how poised sidewalk campaigners with Vaseline smiles could wield so much electoral clout. Somehow or other, though, a frat boy almost always wins the ASB presidency.
Last year’s runoff election was one of the nastier campaigns in memory. Things got ugly when a frat boy ran against a sorority girl, dividing Greek loyalties in half. Before long, supporters of the two candidates were attacking their opponents’ characters and stooping to dirty tricks. Sororities used coercion to make their members vote in blocs. Frat boys drove voters to the polls. The cheating got so bad, both sides were eventually thrown out of the race (though eventually, after some backroom wheeling and dealing, the fraternity candidate emerged as the president of the school).
Ole Miss isn’t the only school that works this way. At the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, an organization called Machine (yes, that’s actually its name) rules over campus politics with an iron fist. Similar in secrecy to Yale’s Skull and Bones (a group both George Bush and John Kerry know something about), many students think the Machine selects candidates, puts the right name on the wire and essentially determines election results before a single ballot is cast.
Sadly, most students at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama don’t care if their will is sidestepped for the glory of a select few. The power-hungry elites are often the only students who care about campus politics and, with countless tricks up their sleeves, they put their own ambitions above the greater good. Not too different from the Republican and Democratic parties in 2004.
So Kerry may be right. This presidential campaign may be run by crooked political operatives who have no problem destroying people in order to win a campaign. But good luck changing the system any time soon. If today’s college campuses are any indicator, the upcoming generation of political leaders is just as comfortable acting crooked as the crowd of politicians we have right now.